Women and Enlightenment in 18th-Century Britain 
by Karen O’Brien.
Cambridge, 310 pp., £17.99, March 2009, 978 0 521 77427 7
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In 1779, a Scottish doctor called William Alexander published a two-volume History of Women. Alexander was a man of the Enlightenment who regarded politeness to women as a mark of civilisation. Savages and ‘musselmen’ might treat their women as sexual helots, but a gentleman was solicitous of his womenfolk. Whether women deserved such treatment was another matter. Modern European women were commendably good-hearted, always ‘exerting themselves in acts of benevolence and charity’, but also dissipated and extravagant: ‘Is not the course which you steer in life, almost entirely directed by fashion and pleasure?’

Civilisation and modern woman were born together. In Britain, their conceptual histories were entwined from the moment, sometime in the mid-18th century, when enlightened theorists came up with the idea of a cumulative stage of human progression – or degeneration, depending on one’s viewpoint – and placed women at its apex. ‘Woman’ became an emblem of the virtues and vices of civilisation, celebrated for generous gentility and condemned for selfish hedonism. The antinomies were not new, but the context of a rapidly commercialising society emphatically was; and it made womanhood a lightning rod for attitudes to capitalist modernity.

What Adam Smith’s pupil John Millar decried as the ‘habits of avarice’ of ‘polished nations’ generated much moral disquiet in 18th-century Britain. People fretted about ostentation and epicureanism, about the emasculation of manners and morals by ‘unmanly Dissipation’. Britain, a host of Jeremiahs declared, was fast becoming a nation steeped in ‘vain, luxurious and selfish effeminacy’. The misogynist drift was not incidental. From antiquity on, women had been associated with libidinal excess. Medieval and Renaissance moralists had called conspicuous consumption Dame Luxury, and had seen feminine desire as inherently luxurious. To its many critics, the ‘commercial spirit’ lauded by new-wave political economists looked decidedly womanly, suffused with the traditional female vices of profligacy and sensuality. If Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was Economic Man in the heroic mode, he was shadowed by Economic Woman: Moll Flanders, the emblem of an age of passions run rampant.

Not everyone shared this pessimism. A very different mood could also be found in Enlightenment Britain, as austerity and self-denial, those old-fashioned Protestant virtues, succumbed to what Samuel Johnson extolled as the ‘innocent pleasures’ of money-making. Acquisitive ‘passions’ previously condemned as venal and anti-social were revalued as ‘interests’, while ‘self-love’, that perennial target of Christian moralising, was vindicated as a healthy drive for self-improvement. To those who fretted about selfish individualism, modernists quoted Pope: in a free and liberal society, ‘true self-love and social are the same.’ Human beings are naturally disposed to care for each other, a host of Enlightenment theorists insisted. Drawing on latitudinarian theology, neurophysiology and moral sense theory, writers developed an altruistic psychology centring on ‘sensibility’, an innate responsiveness to the feelings and needs of others. ‘How selfish soever man may be supposed,’ Smith wrote in the opening lines of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ‘there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.’ The pronouns are male, yet these ‘principles’ were traditionally associated with women, and although Smith and other moral sentimentalists such as David Hume and Francis Hutcheson tried hard to purge the notion (Smith, for example, distinguished large-minded male generosities from ‘womanish lamentations’), femininity continued to be seen as social glue. Female soft-heartedness and sympathy were applauded as reparative virtues, mending communal ties frayed by masculine greed and individualism. Feminine ‘affections’, the Scottish philosophe William Russell wrote in 1773, ‘are in the commerce of the world what current money is in trade: they are sometimes not absolutely necessary, but one can never safely be without them … The women correct that rudeness which pride and passion introduce into the company of men. Their delicate hand smooths the asperities of human life.’

Like the luxurious woman, the benignant woman had a long pedigree. But now she took on unprecedented cultural significance. Historians investigating the reasons for this have looked to ‘domestic ideology’, which in consigning women to the home foisted all the warmer emotions associated with family life on them. But what was at stake in these idealisations was not just a familial feminine ideal (which anyway long predated the 18th century), but the fate of altruistic emotions in a competitive market economy. In an egoistical world, social well-being had become the responsibility of women.

Viewed from this optimistic angle, even feminine luxury took on a moral glow, as part of a great economic machine for the production of general prosperity and happiness. In 1714, in his notorious satire on capitalism, The Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville applauded women’s appetite for fashionable fripperies as an impetus to commercial growth. Mandeville’s paeans to shoppers were ironic, but within a few decades they were being echoed by Enlightenment theorists who combined the economic argument for domestic consumption with a socio-historical revaluation of femininity. These Scottish philosophes, working in the second half of the 18th century in the tradition known as conjectural or stadial history, produced what Karen O’Brien describes as ‘the most extensive engagement with the role of women ever undertaken in European intellectual history’.

Women and Enlightenment in 18th-Century Britain is not a survey of enlightened British thinking about women (there is nothing, for example, about the important developments in medicine, the arts or literature), but an exhaustively researched, elegantly written study of the civilised woman as conceived by Enlightenment intellectuals of both sexes. O’Brien’s book joins a string of recent studies (including a volume resulting from an international project on feminism and Enlightenment in which she and I worked closely together*) that deal with women as the objects, creators and purveyors of enlightened social inquiry. But the feminist verdict on Enlightenment – if such a thing is desirable – remains, at best, equivocal, for reasons that Women and Enlightenment takes care to illuminate.

O’Brien’s last book, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon, was a study of Enlightenment historiography, and history-writing is again the focus here. The key chapter is on the pioneering investigations of women’s condition undertaken by John Millar, Henry Home (Lord Kames), William Robertson, William Alexander and other Scottish enlighteners in the 1760s and 1770s. In works tracing human social evolution from ‘savagery’ to civilisation, they correlated changes in modes of subsistence and domestic arrangements with improvements in women’s lives and status. In primitive societies, it was said, people coupled promiscuously, family life was negligible and women were little more than sexual slaves, but as societies evolved this was replaced by monogamous marriage, gender relationships were moralised and domesticated and women’s status rose steadily from mere ‘objects of animal love’ to men’s ‘faithful friends and agreeable companions’. Or as one populariser of these ideas put it: ‘When nations begin to emerge from gross barbarism, every new step which they take towards refinement is commonly marked by a gentler treatment, and a more reasonable estimation of women.’ The idea was enthusiastically endorsed, making women’s status a ‘barometer of social evolution’.

The men who wrote these works (they were all men) ‘created a language and a framework for understanding the moral agency and changing social codes of women, without which the development of 19th-century feminism would not have been possible’. This was a huge innovation – so huge that its full implications took nearly a century to register. Even Mary Wollstonecraft and Catharine Macaulay didn’t fully grasp its potential, although their arguments for women’s rights could not have been formulated, O’Brien insists, without the ‘sociological and economic vocabulary’ provided by the conjectural historians. But the messages conveyed were equivocal. ‘Woman’ in these Scottish investigations is no longer a timeless Eve but a historical agent with a rich social identity. She is also, however, a metaphor for modernity, a ‘portmanteau term of negative or positive value as Britain came to discursive terms with growth of the commercial sector of the economy’.

Women and Enlightenment opens with a brilliant discussion of England’s ‘Anglican Whig feminists’ – writers such as the Lockean philosopher Catharine Cockburn, the bluestocking moralist Catharine Talbot and Elizabeth Montagu, the ‘Queen of the Blues’ – and their defence of female morals. With maternal devotion as their example, they carolled women’s ‘disinterested benevolence’ and ethical intuition. Their arguments were influential but hazardous. Taken up by the Scottish historians as well as Hume, they fostered what Wollstonecraft, surveying conduct books in 1792, dismissed as ‘sentimental nonsense’ about female superiority. For the Anglican feminists, benevolence was part of a package of virtues that placed women on an ethical level with men, but for the Scottish writers, and the vast popular literature on women inspired by them, it signified feminine moral ‘beauty’, with an ugly flipside in the traditional fondness for luxury, so fatally encouraged by modern consumerism. Civilised gentlemen would chivalrously overlook women’s vicious propensities, but Wollstonecraft had no patience with such condescension. ‘Women, weak women,’ she wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ‘are allowed to possess more goodness of heart [than men] … I doubt the fact.’ ‘Why are girls to be told that they resemble angels; but to sink them below women? … Idle empty words! What can such delusive flattery lead to, but vanity and folly?’

‘Modern gallantry’, as Hume called this language of sexual compliment, wasn’t a minor feature of the British Enlightenment but a key motif of its philosophy of gender. Its inspiration was medieval chivalry, which the Scots, and other enlightened modernists like Edmund Burke, regarded as the forerunner of civilised manners. Women and Enlightenment also examines in rich detail the rediscovery of Britain’s Gothic heritage, with its cult of the ‘lady’ as the embodiment and guardian of chivalric values. Some women writers, such as the novelist and critic Clara Reeve and the translator Susannah Dobson, seized on this image as a vehicle for their cultural aspirations. Others, notably the republican historian Catharine Macaulay, looked back instead to the austere figure of the Roman matron, the champion of classical liberty. Like Wollstonecraft, Macaulay had no time for gallantry (‘sentimental barbarism’), nor was she much exposed to it, as her political reputation and eight-volume History of England usefully deterred would-be gallants, who instead labelled her ‘Amazonian’. Wollstonecraft too was charged with Amazonianism, as she lambasted her fellow philosophes for ‘bubbling’ women’s minds with ‘specious homage’ instead of treating them as equals. For both women, as O’Brien shows, an enlightened society was one that minimised gender distinctions instead of sentimentally inflating them. But 18th-century Britain was not such a society, nor were its philosophes feminists avant la lettre. John Stuart Mill was not alone among the following generation of feminists in censuring British enlighteners for their gallant ‘fopperies’. But if woman as conceived by the British Enlightenment was a subaltern figure, she was also a mutable one, with a chartable history and a transformable future. With her arrival, as O’Brien concludes, the ‘progress of women towards equal membership of British society’ became ‘thinkable’, even if those actively desiring it were an Amazonian minority.

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